As much as Japanese people love to go on about how “Japan has four distinct seasons, you know!” (yes, so does the UK…), the gap between summer and winter – that fantastic period when you’re neither dripping with sweat nor trying to get the feeling back in your fingers - is mercilessly short, and we already seem to be at the end of it.
Japanese buildings are usually made from lightweight materials and, outside of places like Hokkaido in the north, have very little insulation, which means they start getting cold as early as late October. By the time January arrives, you’re wearing a wooly hat in bed and putting off getting up as long as possible since it means surrendering your body to the icy air in the kitchen while frantically boiling the kettle to make a cup of anything hot.
While most of us try to be sparing in our use of our heating (except my neighbour who runs her air conditioner 24/7 so that it constantly sounds like there’s a car idling outside…), more often than not we burn more gas and electricity than we really need to, locked away in our private little sanctuaries.
With this in mind, a number of businesses, shops and community centres in Japan have launched a new campaign for winter, known as Warm Share, which encourages people to switch off their heating at home and head out to a heated public area where, as the name implies, they share the warmth with everyone else.
It’s good for the environment, it’s good for your wallet, it gets you out of the house.
But perhaps the coolest thing about Warm Share is the fact that many locations offer discount coupons and completely free hot drinks to visitors who simply utter the magic words: “I switched off my heating and came here instead.”
▼”Let’s switch off the heating and get together somewhere warm!”
The thinking behind the idea is not unlike that of car pooling. In much the same way that people sit in traffic in cars built for four or more but carrying just one (and all the while complaining about the price of fuel and that the roads are so busy), many of us are spending hours in our homes trying to stay warm but are equally irked by the price of our gas and electricity bills. If we all pull together and share the same spaces as much as possible, though, as well as benefiting from lower heating bills, we help the environment out at the same time.
Website warmshare.jp (Japanese only so far, sorry!) provides everything from information about how to get involved in the scheme to a map that pinpoints businesses, shops and community centres taking part, all divided by theme including places to eat, drink, study, read, enjoy music and art and even relax in a hot spa.
Of course, many of us prefer the comfort and privacy of our own homes and are unlikely to actively seek out a public spot to relax in. But for those who do venture out to a Warm Share location, merely uttering the phrase “I switched off my heating and came here!” gets them anything from discounts to completely free hot drink right the way through until March next year.
Residents in the town of Ichikawamisato, Yamanashi prefecture, for example, are already being rewarded for getting out of their homes with a discount ticket to enter their local hot spring. Both locals and visitors to the town alike receive almost 50% off admission and are free to stay as long as they please, toasty and warm.
Since beginning the scheme, the local spa is reported to have seen as many as 5,000 more visitors than normal, with many seizing the opportunity to cut back on their heating bill and take a warm, relaxing dip at the same time.
One visitor to the spa told reporters that he was thrilled to be able to spend the day relaxing, enjoying great food and keeping warm. “My heating’s off and I’m relaxing in the spa today,” he remarked, “for just 300 yen (US$3.70) I spent the entire day toasty warm and I had a great time.”
Of course, there’s no reason for us all head to public places just to get warm and save on our heating bill. Winter in Japan is the ideal time to get together with friends and family for things like nabe (lit. “pot” or “saucepan”) or pizza making parties. Cooking and drinking together, playing a few videogames, watching a movie; these things all cost far less money than us each hanging around trying to heat our individual homes, and are far more fun.
▼Food, drinks, family, friends. Nabe parties are the best “warm share” we can think of!
No doubt thanks to it being a veritable hive of energy, Tokyo is currently by far the biggest Warm Sharer, but there are locations in numerous areas in Japan outside of the big cities taking part, with more than 3,000 locations signed up to date, which is pretty fantastic if you ask us. As great as it is to have our comfy homes and technology like smart phones, computers and TVs, isn’t it altogether nicer to be that little bit more sociable from time to time?
And even if we don’t especially want to socialize, where’s the harm in finding a nice, warm spot in a public place, surfing the internet and getting a free cup of coffee while someone else foots the heating bill?